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Bill St. Arnaud is a consultant and research engineer who works with clients around the world on a variety of subjects such as next generation Internet networks and developing practical solutions to reduce CO2 emissions such as free broadband and dynamic charging of eVehicles. He is an author of many papers and articles on these topics and is a frequent guest speaker. For more details on my research interests see

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Future of R&E networks and cyber-infrastructure (eInfrastructure)

[A couple days ago I had the honor of giving a talk on the future of R&E networks and cyber-infrastructure to celebrate Kees Neggers receiving the Order of the Orange Nassau ( the Dutch equivalent of the Order of the British Empire)
. As many readers of this blog know Kees Neggers is retiring from SURFnet – the Dutch R&E network.  The following text is some excerpts from my talk. The full presentation is available at:

Before discussing the possible future direction of R&E networks and cyber-infrastructure (einfrastructure) it is important to look back to see the significant impact that R&E networks have already had on the global economy as well as supporting research and education.  As many people know the Internet started with the R&E network community, beginning with the NSFnet in the US and quickly followed by many other R&E networks around the world including SURFnet.  The web, Internet browsers and many other critical tools were developed by this community. Almost all of the major Internet applications we know of today such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc were first developed at university dormitories and laboratories by students who had access to these high speed research networks.

The unfettered bandwidth and “permission free” environment made possible by universities connected through R&E networks enabled these students to create exciting new applications and services that would not be possible on commercial networks of the day. SURFnet, in particular, founded the world’s largest Internet Exchange point AMS-IX which has made The Netherlands a global hub for Internet networks and data centers. It also pioneered concepts in customer owned dark fiber and optical networks that has dramatically reduced the cost of broadband which in turn has enabled The Netherlands to become one of the world’s most advanced broadband societies.

The direct and indirect economic impact of R&E networks in the development of the Internet and all these associated applications and services is worth trillions of dollars and represents at least 6% of our collective GNP.  This is something governments and funding bodies need to remember when deciding what initiatives to support in terms of innovation and creating economic wealth. Empowering our students at our colleges and universities with access to advanced Internet R&E networks will eventually create the next generation of entrepreneurs to bring forth innovative applications and services, resulting in new jobs and businesses.

For example, Lev Gonick, CIO for Case Western university , recently noted that R&E networks are morphing into “entertainment” networks as the bulk of the IP traffic (over 60%) at many universities  is video streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, video file sharing etc.  This is consistent with other data I have seen over the years, that the bulk of most IP traffic on R&E networks is destined for residences and dormitories, of which a substantial is entertainment or game based traffic. (Lightpath traffic is generally much more research intensive). As Lev pointed out this preponderance of social networking and entertainment traffic on university R&E networks is not a bad thing. Students are the leading adopters of advanced technology and when they are given the  freedom of having virtually unfettered bandwidth and few restrictions they can be very creative. New services such as R&E CDN networks, collaborative platforms, integrated wireless services, etc promise to leverage this entertainment aspect of R&E networks to facilitate a similar revolution as students in residences get exposed to these technologies and adopt them into new products and services out into the working world.

Although R&E networks have already had a huge economic and societal impact, I think the best is yet to come.   R&E networks I believe have the opportunity to help us to address major challenges facing society such as global warning, as well supporting new directions in research through Big Data, Global scientific collaboration and the integration of commercial cloud services, wireless and optical networking. Fortunately SURFnet is a world leader in all of these areas.

SURFnet staff for example is working closely with GreenQloud in Iceland to help researchers in The Netherlands reduce the environmental impact of their computing. Studies undertaken by SURFnet indicate that up to 40% of a university’s energy consumption is from ICT. The research and education sector is the biggest contributor to CO2 emissions through the use of ICT in our society. By helping researchers move to GreenQloud SURFnet will be making a significant contribution to addressing the challenge of global warming. GreenQloud also supports SAML authentication and works with SURFnet federated ID.

This support for access to GreenQloud is important because there is increasing evidence that researchers and students, are not walking but running to use commercial clouds. Confidential data I have seen from a number of sources points to an exponential growth in commercial cloud usage by  researchers and students.  This movement to use commercial clouds reminds me of the days when the PC was introduced.  The high priests of the big mainframe computers made the same arguments that many  HPC users do today of the cloud. On a per CPU basis a mainframe computer or HPC will always be cheaper than using a PC or cloud. But the big advantage of the cloud, as with the PC in its day, is not the cost of computing, but “permission free” computing.  Permission free computing allows grad students or researchers to quickly and easily undertake computing tasks without having to get permission to purchase a cluster or get peer review approval to access campus HPC resources.

In addition to the advantage of permission free computing SURfnet and other networks like NORDUnet, JANET and Internet 2 are working hard to significantly reduce the cost of commercial cloud computing services. Internet 2’s Net+ service and NORDUnet’s global peering services will eliminate the large “bandwidth” charges most commercial cloud providers asses on users.  By bringing users directly to commercial cloud providers across their high speed networks R&E  networks have been able to reduce cost of using commercial cloud providers such as Box, Amazon, etc by as much as 40%. Building your own private cloud makes no sense with these kinds of prices.

I agree with Lev Gomick that this move to clouds presage a general trend in universities and colleges where industry  will provide most of the physical infrastructure of computing and storage while the university and R&E networks can focus on services and supporting researchers and educators in use of this infrastructure.  Cyber-infrastructure will become more of a collaborative relationship between industry suppliers and academic users.   Collaboration and identity tools like SURFconext, CoManage, Globus On Line, etc will be essential to mediate commercial service provided by R&E networks to academic users on campus.

There are big and exciting changes ahead for R&E networks and cyber-infrastructure. Under Kees Neggers stewardship SURFnet has undertaken many great advance in networking and cyber-infrastructure. But his most important legacy is the fantastic team that he leave behind who will continue to spearhead exciting new developments in this field and maintain The Netherlands global leadership – BSA]

R&E Network and Green Internet Consultant.

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